My face, red from anger, gasped as the reflective sleek steel waved inches from my nose.
Sitting back quickly, I raised my hands up, palms upwards, to symbolize calmness. Inside my head, however, was a raging storm of emotions. What just happened here to have a knife waving in front of my face? This is my worst travelling experience.
Flashing back to earlier that morning, I was kicking my heels waiting for a taxi from my bungalow in Ko Pha Ngan after the Full Moon Party. I had enough of Thailand and I had a long day ahead to get to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. So, I decided to grab a bus from the Thai mainland all the way to KL and in hindsight, I really ought to have flown from Ko Samui, at the next Island. Never will I have undertaken this journey if I knew what laid before me.
Arriving at the Raja Ferry Port, I was dismayed to find the ferry hadn’t arrived yet. I knew about Thai time so the combo ticket allowed for plenty of time to allow me to catch the bus on the mainland. However, hours passed before being given the all clear to board the Raja Ferry that finally arrived. I knew I was late to catch the bus from Surat Thani but I hoped that Thai time still applied to the buses. Disembarking on the mainland I was taken by a waiting bus to get to Surat Thani bus station.
Now, Surat Thani will forever be my least favourite place on Earth. A hot bed of corruption, sleaze and conveniently placed as the port to get to the isles of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. The first time I arrived here two months earlier just two weeks into my RTW trip, I absolutely hated it as my friend and I were faffed around trying to get to the train station to Bangkok after being dropped by the port buses in the wrong place on purpose. They did that so money scammers can earn a commission to take you for rest of the way in their tuk tuk or any other vehicle. I hated it and I was dismayed the locals were in the act. This really gives a bad impression on their people.
But this time, I expected this and true to form, they dropped me off among others in the pouring monsoon rain down a high street of Surat Thani in the middle of the day. An official talked to all of us, and when he realised that I needed to get to the Kuala Lumpur bus, he pressed me on to a group of Thai guys waiting around along with two other backpackers that got off with me. We were slightly perplexed. I just wanted out of Surat Thani. I should have walked to Surat Thani train station but I had no idea where we were.
Taken to a Malaysian travel agency, we were split up as we had different tickets. The Americans were dealt with first and spirited away to their assumed waiting bus and I was next. Reaching the desk, she took one look at my ticket and claimed my bus was already gone. I asked when the next bus would go today. Shaking her head, she said there would be no more buses today and if I wanted to get to Kuala Lumpur soon, I should pay for a quick minibus to get me to Hat Yai, near the border of Malaysia, where I could catch a bus there to get across the border. This seemed fair enough as I really wanted to get to Malaysia. Asking what the price was, she replied it would be £85 worth. No way. The bus ticket I paid for earlier costed £12. I knew I was getting truly ripped off so instead I asked for a bus ticket for the next day. She wasn’t having that. Knowing I wouldn’t get any where, I turned to leave. Surely, there would be other travel agents offering a fairer deal or I can get to the bus station to find out more. With a curt shout from the travel agent, my exit was blocked my two big burly guys – one whose hand could easily rip my head from my shoulders. I couldn’t believe it. Had I stumbled across a bad gangster movie scenario?
‘You will pay today’ the Thai woman glinted at me evilly. I pulled the ‘I don’t have that much money on me’ line yet she got the burly guys to frogmarch me to the nearest ATM. I tried to get passerbys’ attention but the tourists either looked confused or the locals, knowingly what was happening, simply looked away. I should count myself lucky that they didn’t drain my bank account, only just the amount they requested. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me yet I remained calm. I could see they had knives and I wasn’t going to attempt to see if I could get away. I couldn;t really, one had a vice like grip on my backpack.
This truly was a rip off travel agency. I wondered about the two Americans I saw earlier and the blonde girl who I saw leaving when I first arrived. Being placed in a minibus. I found myself to be the only one on board. What about the others? I was tired, frazzled, and the driver kept stopping at different towns over the course of the late afternoon and early evening. Falling asleep, I woke up with a start when I heard voices on the bus. I was sat at the back of the bus with my bag strapped to my front and before me was a grinning face. I was now truly awake and looked around. He casually sat with 3 others on the bus and talking with the driver who was passing some bags to them. This reeked a suspicious vibe. It was getting late and I wanted to get across the Malaysian border before it closed for the night.
The guy in front of me opened his bag and revealed pouches of white powder. Taking a sample on his finger, he sniffed it up his nose. I was utterly horrified. Here I was, caught up in a drug ring. What if we were stopped by the police? Would I be arrested with them? I’ve heard horror stories of tourists getting caught and mistaken for drug dealers.
Thankfully, the guys got off the bus and took everything with them that was piled on the front seats. The driver turned round and said maybe we should stay here for the night. This is when I finally lost it. I didn’t know where I was on the road to Hat Yai, I got ripped off, and here I found myself in a drug ring. I didn’t know what possessed me but I truly lost my temper. I started shouting at him to get me to the Malaysian border right now. This was a journey no backpacker should have faced and all the frustrations I felt about Thai corruption and sleaze came pouring out of me. And that’s when I heard steel sliding and found myself coming face to face with a very sharp knife.
Sitting back quickly, I held my hands up to calm him down and merely explained that I just want to get to Hat Yai to meet the bus to get to the Malaysian border. He jabbed his knife a few times at me while laughing and flung his knife on the seat next to him. Maybe I should have ran out of the bus then but looking outside, I was in a small village where the drug dealers lived. I just wanted to get to Hat Yai.
Luckily, he took me to Hat Yai after much bravado of huffing, puffing and sighing. Driving at extra fast speed, driving around bends to have me thrown from side to side, I was just plain exhausted. We arrived just merely 10 minutes before the bus left Hat Yai to the border. The driver pointed at the busy travel agency and pressed me my ticket. I snatched it off him with a disgusted look on my face and said a really sarcastic thanks. Storming over to the agency, I complained to the staff but they just simply smiled and nodded at me. Again, Saving Face thing in Thailand. I had enough of Thailand. I cursed their customs. I cursed their attitudes. I cursed their inability to be decent. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me telling me the name of the agency back in Surat Thani. I turned round and found a blonde Canadian in front of me. She seemed recognisable. Turns out she was the one that left the agency as I arrived and she went through a very similar experience. These travelling minibuses for tourists has been used as a cover for dealing drugs. But thankfully she never got a knife to her face. We comiserated on our experience with a much needed beer while we waited for the bus from Hat Yai to leave.
I was so happy to be in Hat Yai and finally going to Malaysia after a horrendous journey and from an experience that I’ll never forget. You will be pleased to know that I alerted the authorities as soon as I got to Malaysia through Thai and British means. They promised to look into it.
But what did I learn from the experience?
– I’m sure you might think it’s my fault for putting myself in this awful situation. Maybe I’m too trusting or too gullible. This probably happened when I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I shouldn’t have been dropped off at that random place in Surat Thani after all. But if I start being suspicious of every foreigner all the time, I would never get to see their country through their eyes.
– I was pretty impressed with myself for being calm throughout the whole journey under pressure. I could have been crying and panicking all the time.
– I knew that I could face anything as a solo traveller.
However, I hear today that Thai authorities are cracking down on corruption and scam artists in Surat Thani. Good. I hope they assemble a travel centre where all the travellers can go to buy/collect their ticket and transport out of Surat Thani rather than vendors on the side of the road. It would everything more transparent, more easier and the number one priority – 100% safe.
But overall, I’ll never come back to Surat Thani again. I have no desire to go back to Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan. But to Ko Tao? I’ll just get the Catamaran from Chumphon instead.
Now, was it all plain sailing from Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur? Well that is another story…